Tagged: Participatory Democracy

Policy is more than a product of process; policy is process itself

The London School of Economics and Political Science blog site carries an evocative – if not provocative – post from a Senior Researcher at the Centre for European Studies, at the University of Oslo.  The post is nine months old, and hasn’t drawn much response – however, the commentary does beg for an audience.  Plato indeed may have set the Western tradition innocently in search of philosopher kings, and technocracy may have now quite fully co-opted Plato’s intentions for inquiry with proclamations from elite-led multilateral economic institutions.  It may be time to begin again.

In the LSE blog post, the scholar argues against democratic process in deference to expert managed social systems, with the tacit assumption that the two are incompatible.  It is a sentiment that the Scandinavian scholar Jorgan Randers has voiced repeatedly in his lament over the global apathy toward the findings of the Club of Rome study on The Limits to Growth, which Randers co-authored.  At the core of Rander’s lament is the view that Western Society’s main institutions of “democracy and [capitalistic] economy are based on short-termism, resulting in a slow societal response to challenges, which need long-term solutions and investments.”  Capitalism and democracy are, in fact, distinct frameworks for seeing and interacting in the world, and linking them monolithically could lead us to “discard the baby with the bathwater.”  Catherine Holst challenges the need and efficacy of democracy itself from a policy perspective.

In responding to blog post of Holst’s argument, policy is more than a product of process; policy is the process itself.

Philosophical arguments and practical experience indeed can illustrate that “expertise without the people” and “people without the expertise” are both, in their extreme forms, fatal paths into the future. So it is easy to agree with the author when she asserts “The question is whether we must also include a basic fact of expertise alongside “the basic fact of pluralism” and other basic facts normative political theory must recognize.” The author, however, appears unaware of any method for achieving this end and therefore postulates “To deal with the new risks and hazards, the best available expertise must be mobilized and given the decision-making power needed, even if by doing so we are challenging familiar ideas of democracy and legitimacy.” This is a push to the extreme. And it is not necessary where a mechanism does exist to insert – and also to challenge — expert testimony within local deliberation.

Why stick to traditional ideas of “rule of the people” that may be irrelevant and even dangerous in a world that is in urgent need of decisions based on our best knowledge?”

This is not a rhetorical question. It is, however, contrived. Ideas and ideals of “rule of the people” are far from Western traditions. The modern notion that local acts have global impact shifts the focus from the fact that global systems of interaction and exchange have — and are today having — their decimating consequences at the local levels. It was not local decision making by the people that led to the construction of wobbly and self-serving global fiscal policies. The mega systems were devised by the experts, while the local economies have been colonized and enslaved into the global systems.

The author continues with “My contention is that ambitious democrats criticizing technocracy, juridification and elitism, in the EU and elsewhere, tend to underestimate what they are up against.” It is not clear that the underestimation is one-sided, though. The author asserts that the version that she presents is a “realistic argument” revealing the judgmental bias that counter arguments are unrealistic, and she tacitly enshrouds her claim to realism in the writings that accrue to institutional scholars. In doing this, she mistakes “thoughts” with “thinking” _ “institutions” with “process.” In a fanciful conjecture, the author wonders, “What if elite discussions among the informed and knowledgeable more often produce decisions that are in the enlightened, long-term interest of everyone, than democratic deliberation?” One might equally wonder what if the perspectives of the elite could be melded with the perspectives of the disenfranchised to present a balanced view of a preferred future. The challenge in finding a sustainable future points in the direction of a methodology for collectively envisioning a preferred future. This type of thinking must rely on more than the habits of the past practiced by experts gathered in the rarified halls.

The author calls upon one school of tradition to assert “ … the realist argument touches upon the classical debate on how to understand the relationship between “is” and “ought” (what does a de facto expertise-dependence imply for how we conceptualize political ideals?).” Herein rests a central point. If “is” is taken as essentially “right”, then it does imply “ought.” However, Hasan Ozbekhan asserted almost a half century ago that in planning preferred futures “can” implies “ought.” Extrapolations of the present into the future have limited, short-term relevance in a changing world – or in a world within which change is broadly accepted to be necessary.

To take the author’s side in the proposition, reliance on democracy as democracy has been practice in the past holds little promise for melding the hearts of the people with the minds of their wisest citizens. Democracy, itself, has become corrupt in many ways, and one of the underlying reasons for this is that the freedom to practice democracy has not been matched with the responsibility to practice democracy. The author will perhaps concede that within the expert community, where the circles have been drawn to distinguish anointed experts from non-experts, decision-making is, on balance, democratic. The real issue is who gets to sit at this table. If it is “the case that expertise interaction is more rational and deliberative than interaction among “most people” …” why is this so and what might be done about it? Focus groups, design charrettes, and community surveys all seek to harvest information that is subsequently interpreted by – and forced through the lens of – expert groups. The meaning and the sense of importance of such deliberations are the meanings and the senses that the experts carry with them from their experiences in life – experiences that they have accumulated as they have walked down pathways that have differentiated themselves from the non-experts in the community. This is why community decisions are too important to be left to the tender mercies of experts alone. History is witness to this finding.

When policy begins to focus on the way that all people can collectively make democratic decisions, we might next begin to focus on a policy that assures that all essential stakeholders are fully and transparently represented in civic sector design and decision-making discussions. To do this, policy scholars must see beyond what “is” to discover what “ought” to be. There are harbingers of the future struggling to emerge in the wake of current crisis.

Elinor Ostrom’s Legacy of the Commons

At this time in history, 78 is still far too young an age to be swept into the future. For four decades, Elinor and her colleagues have been slaying a myth that was breathed into life by Ecologist Garrett Hardin‘s misunderstanding of the nature of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The myth is that people cannot self-govern … and yet that, somehow, a higher mortal authority is imagined to have the elusive capacity to govern with humane wisdom.

This myth brings us to where we have come today. The upturned eyes of hope and blame are focused on national leaders and diverted away from our immediate neighbors. “We the people” was never intended as “They the people” – even in representative democracy. The lazy and simplistic dodge of abrogating citizen duties for understand complex issues has led to a situation in which even our elected representatives now no longer deliberate for purposes of shared understanding. Our elected representatives mirror us and they too dodge the duty to collectively understand situations — and in doing so they yield themselves and our futures up to the influence of forms of veiled thinking that speaks most loudly into their ears at the moment that decisions must be made.

Elinor’s life work teaches us all that things do not have to be this way. Her work tells us again and again that throughout the world, things are not run this way.

Elinor’s message to us is far, far too powerful to be interred into the archives of human thought simply because her living voice can no longer prick us. The story that she and her colleagues brought forward has the power to slay myths and to open up new vistas for humanity. We can self govern. The evidence is in. And yet there are prerequisites for effective self-governance. It is this exploration that should and must become the living legacy of Elinor’s work.

There are many facets to Elinor’s teaching that speak directly to the practice of participatory democracy. She is best known perhaps for her systems view of the ecological Commons, polycentricity (there are multiple centers of agency in governance), and design principles for institutional renewal. One that is of central concern to us is the necessity for people in a self-governing population to clearly see and deeply feel the necessity for working together to sustain themselves. It is a matter of local, community perception. In a culture that looks for top-down guidance, bailouts and salvation … and a culture that offers individual mobility and fosters community disinvestment … we who choose to once again feel an authentic connection to place have our work cut out for us.

It is through a connection to place – what Cynthia Nikitin of the Project for Public Spaces calls “Place Capital” — that we forge our social capital. And as Craig Lindell of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras says, ‘All fiscal capital comes from social capital.’ So, those of us who are worried about the future of our grand experiment in democracy and its twin experiment in capitalism need to reflect on what might be passing from us at this moment.

There are many who might still look at Elinor’s work and claim that she has studied exceptions that only serve to prove a larger rule. There are those who will look at self-organized democratic communities as somehow being quaint or maybe primitive. There are those who will simply resign themselves to the myth that direct democracy is not scalable, and that representative democracy – with all of its contemporary flaws – is the only way. Yet there also is much agreement that the bridge that we are crossing today is crumbling beneath our feet. Just recently, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and Chairman of the conservative World Economic Forum, was reported to have conceded that “Capitalism in its current form has no place in the world around us.” This is a critically telling utterance because capitalism and its unbridled individual accumulation of wealth has done much to shape contemporary American democracy – and arguably has done even much more to distance governance from the efforts to control influence and corruption which inspired the invention of democracy by the ancient Athenians.

Elinor’s passing is a trumpet call to us all shouting that now is a critically important moment to attend to each other’s business — for the sake of the foundations of the future itself.

Planet under Pressure

Professor Ray Ison of the Institute for Sustainable Futures reports on a Planet under Pressure

We share Professor Ison’s concerns.  A split in systemic thinking erupted in the origins of the Club of Rome in 1970.  An original proposal by Hasan Ozbekhan and Aleco Christakis offered 49 Continuous Critical Problems (CCPs) and argued for a dialogical method for dealing with them.   This dialogue-based proposal was rejected in favor of an expert-design System Dynamics approach that resulted in the publication of  The Limits to Growth.  As a result of the report and parallel efforts, system dynamics became a dominating example of systemic thinking.

Meanwhile, a dialogical approach for dealing with systemic complexity was launched in the form of Interactive  Management through the efforts of Aleco and John Warfield.  In its further refinements IM has become Structured Dialogic Design (SDD).

Tom Flanagan and I have recently published a workbook that addresses the full human complexity of pressures on our planet using SDD.   One sure method of getting a group to agree on priorities for dealing with those pressures is to get them to spend a day focused on the 49 CCPs using SDD.  Perhaps some conference will have the courage to atte3mmpt this.  The book is A Democratic Approach to Sustainable Futures: A Workbook for Addressing the Global ProblematiqueIt is available either at Create Space or through Amazon.

Welcome to the Institute for 21st Century Agoras

People the world over aspire to participatory democracy. Yet the democratic planning and design of social systems, from local urban projects to national health care, is threatened by our institutional inability to engage stakeholders in dialogues that result in effective collective design and commitment.

A Democratic Vision for All Stakeholders
The Agoras Institute promotes a democratic transformation of civil society and government by empowering the capacity of client organizations and educators to produce breakthroughs in the collective confrontation of multidimensional wicked problems. Our immediate mission is to establish and nurture new Agoras of the 21st century – global centers of democratic participatory design and education – in areas of critical socio-political importance or demand.

What are Agoras?
With each shift in human social communication and technology, the means for wise engagement must evolve. In ancient Athens, all citizens could meet face to face in the public arena. Today, our arenas are globally distributed, with unmanageable relational and problem complexity. The Institute supports client organizations with tools, practices, and training to support engagements for addressing projects of high sociotechnical complexity.

At this critical juncture of the evolutionary process of humanity, there cannot be conscious evolution without the capacity to explicate through dialogue the wisdom of the people in the Agoras of the 21st Century Global Village.

 Alexander Christakis